Standing in front of the old Larson Ranch, waiting for the resident rabbit to show his face again, Page kept his camera trained on the crumbling outhouse. He had lots of deer, bison, hawks, prairie dogs, coyotes in his portfolio, but he was low on bunnies. It was one of those crisp winter days when the only consolation the sun offered was diamonds in the snow. I turned my face toward it, hoping for warmth. Everything glittered, but it was the brown ribbon of a road, making its way in a voluptuous, unobstructed curve toward the Gillespie ranch in the far off hills, that held my gaze. I found its mile-wide berth beautiful, generous, and even reassuring. “I love the curve in this road, why is that, do you think?” I asked Page who was crouched low and peering under the outhouse for signs of the rabbit.
“I’m not exactly sure”, he replied, adjusting his aperture, then rising. “But there is something very pleasing about a bend in the road, especially this one. I’ve taken dozens of photos from this spot.” We stood silently for a bit and then he added. “But I saw an interview with an Indie 500 race car driver once and he talked about how you slow down when you enter a curve but speed up to pull you out, to give you momentum. So maybe we just like sense of momentum it gives us.”
I recalled my own driving lessons with my father. “Take your foot off the gas as you head into the curve and you won’t have to brake”, he instructed. “You’ll feel like you’re losing control at first, but once you reach the middle you hit the gas again. You’ll be back on track.”
Highway 4, linking Val Marie with the rest of the world, has a few choice curves. One of my favourites is on approaching the Hillandale Rd turnoff, on the way out of town. It feels like the last psychic break from the village as the little highway veers northeast; the elevator tops finally disappear from the rear view mirror. Just before the arc a wide and gentle slope appears directly in front of me. On any given day the hill is dotted with cattle or stitched with hay bales. It’s awash in gold or green depending on the season, a throw the kind of sumptuous prairie light that rivals the sky. Driving toward the slope I imagine I am a hawk or an eagle, swooping then swerving and banking at a delicious angle. I laugh out loud at the definite yet unhurried change in direction, how gracefully it turns in this vast and open space.
Taking that same curve from the other direction I’m most often driving at night. In the absolute darkness all I can see is what is directly before me, the horizon is lost in darkness. In the limited reach of my headlights there is nothing but asphalt, sudden dips and holes. In the summer nesting birds fly from the edges, and snakes wriggle helplessly across the road, voles and mice skitter. I watch for darting deer, coyotes and the occasional fox. Twice an owl flew at my windshield out of nowhere, all eyes and wings, my heart jumped at the encounter. I think of Doctorow’s advice to young writers: Writing is like driving home in the dark. You can only see as far as your headlights allow, but it’s enough to get you home.
My favourite tree marks the end of another curve, this one just past West Flat Rd. I first noticed it one warm windy night the first week of my first summer here. Along the road bugs and leaves rose and fell in small cyclones. The tree waved up and down, back and forth, reminding me of a sea fan waving under water. Remnant of the ancient world, I whispered, on the bottom of the empty Bear Paw Sea. Large stones loomed in the dark fields along the road, plucked, dragged and settled by advancing ice, plopped and left there, far from home. Errant geological hitch-hikers not going anywhere anytime soon. Once, driving by the Sea-Fan tree, Ervin points to it and mentions, in passing, that it’s been chewed down to nothing three times by beavers. And look it now. I am thrilled. I chose a survivor.
Living in the land of sky means you can see far, ut it also means that once you let something loose it go go far, fast, be it calves or dogs or troubles. Release your worries like a dirty old bandana, or a crumbled kleenex, and there’s no net of branches or boughs, no rocky promontory nor high rise balcony on which they might get snagged and left to dangle before your eyes. They are gone. The wind and the wideness have let you say good-bye for good. I wonder if this is one of the reasons the author Kathleen Norris, born in Hawaii, prefers North Dakota to the lush jungles of her childhood home. How she misses it when she’s gone, why she wrote ‘Dakota’ and it turned into a classic and referring to this territory to it as a ‘spiritual geography’.
There have been other curves in my life. One summer I sat on the back of a motorbike while my boyfriend took me down every back road in south Michigan. It was the year my mother died and all I could do was cling to his leather jacket and lean back and stare up at the canopy of trees. We rode on into autumn and the green turned to gold and I cried the whole time, surrendering into the curves hugging the cornfields, grasping at the occasional whiff of calm along the trajectory. We stopped for coffees at hunting lodges and roadside cafes and pointed across small lakes or stands of trees at the road ahead of us.
Driving home from school for the holidays, before the Coquihalla, I took Hope-Princeton. It passed through the town of Hedley, an old mining town and that sat in the middle of a hairpin curve. The entrances to abandoned mine shafts hung high overhead like ancient caves, but you dare not take your eyes from the road to gawk at them. Then there was the truck route bypassing Naramata, with its head-on approach to an old mudslide and a sudden swerve into orchard country. And then there’s that fifteen minutes of treachery upon entering Golden BC. The curves loop back on themselves and there’s no telling what’s coming at you from the other direction. These are not the elegant, reflective curves of the prairie. They do not make one prone to pondering life at one’s leisure. You just want to get them over with.
Of all the hill curves on Highway 4, the one straddling The Divide tells the best story of who we are. North of The Divide all rivers flow to Hudson’s Bay and south of it they head to the Gulf of Mexico. Weather changes in a snap; some days the snow line is so definitely and stops as suddenly as a window blind pulled down. Here is also where the old west remains, there are no farms plowed flat, more native grasses and draws left alone to the sage and the coyotes. The land remains relatively unchanged for centuries. One twilight drive home Ervin said, as we crossed the Divide headed back to Val Marie, “We are passing from the way it is now to the way it used to be.”
Why is it some images are so aesthetically pleasing? The answer could lay in a theory based on a mathematical equation. In paintings the equation shows up in the ratio of figure to ground, or foreground to background. The equation is called the ‘divine proportion’ or ‘golden ratio’ and has been around for centuries and shows up everywhere, in the ways trees space themselves, in growth rates of flower petals, even in human anatomy. DaVinci explored the golden ratio in his works. To say prairie roads bend in divine proportions does them the justice they deserve. But maybe we just need a curve ball every once in a while, and the curve is a welcome shift in perspective.
For the past year I’ve been playing Gregorian chants on my drive out of town and Iris Dement on the way home, but lately I prefer silence. The sea fan waves me in, like the ground crew on a runway. I taxi into the last curve up a little hill where, if I were to turn right, down frozen ruts, I’d reach the remains of my mother’s childhood home, caved in on itself. I am bewildered that I ended up here, that the curve that began with Aurore Laprise’s birth bent far enough to collect me and roll me here, like one of those errant stones. And I hope, having landed, I can do us both justice.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie home.